25 Things Aspiring Screenwriters Can Learn from ‘Trumbo’

The film has a lot of hidden tips for writers, despite being a box office flop.

Truth be told, I saw Trumbo because I was a huge fan of Bryan Cranston, Jay Roach, and I love the history of Hollywood. I might be biased, but I think that this film has a lot of great tips for aspiring and professional screenwriters alike.

Please note: This is a top 25 list of things you can learn from the film ‘Trumbo’. Whether or not the real Dalton Trumbo did or said any of this is beyond the scope of this article.

Here are 25 things that I learned.

1. Sometimes Sitting In A Bathtub Can Summon The Muse

The film opens with Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) sitting in a bathtub. This setting would become a common occurrence later but after a moment of silent reflection, he springs forward and rushes to the typewriter.

For whatever reason, silence and the soft trickle of water is very conducive to working through a mental block. Next time you have writer’s block, consider a bath or shower and let your brain subconsciously work it out.

2. Movies Have Huge Social Impacts

The fact that the blacklist exists at all is a huge testament to this. The entire film is based on the blacklist that kept a lot of Hollywood writers, actors and filmmakers out of work and, sometimes, in jail for being a communist.

Their reasoning was because they knew films were a major factor in public opinion and the zeitgeist. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals knew this was true and actively sought to stop communist sympathizers from working in Hollywood because they feared the message they would send.

“Movies are the most powerful influence ever created.” — J. Parnell Thomas, played by James DuMont

3. A Writers’ Group Is Important

Dalton Trumbo had the Hollywood Ten, a group of common thinkers that agreed on the same ideology. While you aren’t required to have communists or political activists in your group, it is important to have supportive people around you. To show that you aren’t alone. You have other people at your back, and everyone has struggled.

4. Stand Up For What You Believe In.

The popular opinion isn’t always the best, history has taught us that. Trumbo stands up for himself while signing a record-breaking contract when he tells the studio head not to read a columnist if he doesn’t want to see the bad press. You are who you are.

“Just stop reading Hedda Hopper.” — Dalton Trumbo, played by Bryan Cranston

You have values and opinions. Wherever you fall on any issue, political or otherwise, be sure to stick to your guns and stand up for what you believe in. Especially if you have the outlet of your writing.

5. Politics Are Important But Remember To Do Your Job

Throughout the film, Dalton Trumbo constantly tries to find work or actively writes. Even with all the press and a politics that surround him, he still signs a contract with MGM and develops new material.

Remember, no matter what politics or issues surround you, you still have a job to do. Sit down at the keyboard and put your anger, love, fear, or rage into your writing.

6. Be Willing To Risk It All

Trumbo has a good life. He could have easily sunk into the shadows and disavowed his communist status and lived a good life as a record breaking screenwriter. But instead, he chose to risk everything in order to stand up for his ideals and stick to his guns. You don’t have to fight for every cause, but remember that we live in a time where it is much easier to become a successful writer. We don’t have a third of the problems that people struggled with just 60-years ago.

“I won’t fight for a lost cause. I’m not willing to lose it all. But I am willing to risk it all.” — Dalton Trumbo

Trumbo knew where history would land. You can’t predict the future, but have the conviction to act like success is inevitable.

7. Contracts Are Going To Be Broken

Despite signing a record-breaking contract with MGM, the studio broke its contract and vowed to not hire anyone on the blacklist.

Never treat a contract, job or paycheck like it is the end all be all. If you aren’t careful, you will run out of money fast. John August has a great post about movie money for screenwriters. A job can be taken away, even if you have a contract.

8. There’s Always A Way.

This mentality is what helped Trumbo and his writer friends stay afloat during the blacklist, but it’s also what caused the blacklist to fall. Without trying to work within the system and the confines that it brought to him, Trumbo wouldn’t have helped to bring down the blacklist. It’s because of his “where there’s a will, there’s a way” mentality that allowed Trumbo to get big projects like Exodus, The Brave One or Spartacus and show that the entire system was a joke.

Don’t lose your optimistic attitude. You’ll need it when times are tough.

9. Titles Are Important.

Screenplay and film titles are so important. Just look at Edge of Tomorrow. Trumbo offers a script to Ian McLellan Hunter called The Princess and the Peasant, which Hunter despises and changes the name to Roman Holiday. It would later go on to win an Academy Award.

Despite the old adage, people judge a book by its cover and its title. They do the same for movies. Make sure to give your film’s title the proper time and thought you would give the entire script.

10. Stay Humble.

Trumbo was an award-winning screenwriter with an Academy Award under his belt and he still took jobs writing B-movies for The King Brothers.

You are a great screenwriter, you have had some success, but don’t get cocky and overvalue yourself or you’ll end up sitting on your thumbs waiting for the work to come in. Pro Tip: It never will.

11. Be Prolific.

Dalton Trumbo wrote 18 screenplays in 2 years for an average pay of $1,250 (worth about $12,500 today.) That’s $112,500 per year writing an average of one script every six weeks. That’s not terrible but if he had only written one script per year his rate would’ve dropped to unlivable.

It’s very easy to say “be prolific,” but much harder to actually do so. You don’t have to write that fast but if you commit yourself to a schedule of 2.5 pages a day, you’ll have a script in 40 days. That’s Trumbo speed.

Break your writing down into manageable chunks and don’t miss your deadlines.

12. Sit Down At The Keyboard (Or Typewriter)

The best way to become a successful writer is to write. That’s it. Reading, watching, and networking are important but the act of writing is what separates the good from the bad. The great from the mediocre. The Academy Award-winners and the aspiring.

Plant your butt in a chair and type until you accomplish your goal and you’ll be as prolific as Trumbo.

13. Pick Deadlines And Stick To Them.

After his release from prison, Trumbo worked for The King Brothers for $1,200 per script. He stayed humble and walked out of the office saying that he could deliver a script in three days. One-hundred pages in three days. That’s an insane rate.

But he stuck to it, and you should too. If Trumbo can write a first draft that quickly, nothing should stop you from completing the first draft in a few weeks.

Remember to set realistic goals. Don’t fall for the planning fallacy. What you set, stick to it.

14. Great Reviews. No Work.

You are only as good as your last script. Keep that in mind. It’s like a 4-year university. When you transfer, they only look at the last two years of education. Same thing with filmmaking. People will only look at what you’ve written recently. If you can’t find paid work, write on spec.

“[Roman Holiday]’s a huge hit. Great reviews. I haven’t worked in nine months.” — Ian McLellan Hunter, played by Alan Tudyk

15. Spread The Wealth Around.

When overworked, Trumbo passed scripts to his friends. This is a relationship business, don’t forget to spread work around if you can’t take it.

16. Social Justice is Important, But Be Subtle.

Frank King (John Goodman) had a problem with The Alien and the Farm Girl script that Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) wrote. It had dialogue that was so on the nose that would’ve gotten King subpoenaed if produced. Social justice is important but bury it subtly so it implants the idea in the mind of the viewer instead of bashing them over the head with it.

It brings new meaning to this scene.

“I was thinking. It’s why I’m a writer. To say things that matter.” — Arlen Hird, played by Louis C.K.

17. Don’t Over Think It.

Arlen Hird obsesses over The Alien and the Farm Girl character motivation, but Trumbo corrects, “you’re overthinking.”

Sometimes the simplest answer is the best. Other times you’ll need to let it sit with you for a while, but you must not overthink an element of your script. It only leads to bad writing.

18. Don’t Rest On Your Laurels.

Trumbo won an academy award (sort of) for Roman Holiday but that didn’t affect his ability to write cheaply for the King Brothers. Awards are a great way to get noticed but you can’t sit on your awards and coast. You have to press forward, put the award on your shelf and keep writing.

19. Don’t Hold Grudges.

Despite being an ass to him by naming names, Trumbo takes a script from a begging Buddy Ross. Trumbo could have said no, but he took the job because he knew what it would mean.

If you hold a grudge, you’re only hurting your chances of success. People are going to do bad things to you, things that really hurt, but the more you hold against people the heavier your burden becomes. Eventually, it’ll break your back.

20. Write Where You Have To.

After his back pain started, Trumbo wrote in a bathtub. This part is true, look are this:

Don’t romanticize where you write. You can’t limit yourself to writing only when the sun is rising in your kitchen and you sip a caramel macchiato. You’ll never write.

Being a professional writer is about putting your butt in a seat and writing.

21. Know Your Audience.

Frank King assaults a member of the MPAA for threatening him with boycotts. King knows his audience and they don’t care who boycotts or who reviews them poorly. He’s a classic b-movie producer that knows how to make a film and knows how to make his money back.

Know your audience, it’ll help influence the writing and help you envision what watching the film in a theatre full of them would be like.

22. Always See The Good Story

Otto Preminger hired Trumbo to write Exodus which he called a “colossal piece of shit,” but Trumbo noted, “there’s a good story in there.”

You have to always keep an open mind and find the beauty in something. There is always a good story in anything, no matter how bad a script or novel may be. There’s a good story in there. It’s your job to find it.

23. Sometimes It’s About What You Don’t Say

Trumbo pits Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger against each other by making each of them believe the other will put Trumbo’s name on a film first.

Sometimes in this business, you get what you want by leaving out details. I’m not advocating you lie, but you don’t have to be completely upfront if the occasion does not warrant.

24. There Are No Villains, Only Victims

In the final speech of the film, Dalton Trumbo says “there are no villains, only victims of the blacklist.” This can be inferred two ways. That in every story, even your villain is not a villain, they are a victim of circumstance and believe what they are going after just as much as your hero. John Wayne plays a sort of villain in this film, but he just believed he was being patriotic. Every story has a hero and a villain, but there is no such thing as a villain in reality.

Another way to look at it is that you shouldn’t look back in history and remember the villains, you should remember the victims. This world is full of bad people that do bad things to others, but remembering the names and faces of the victims is more important.

Remember, we’re all humans. We’re in this world together.

25. A Life Spent Writing Is Not A Life Wasted.

Writing is life. If you spend your entire life writing, and you come to the end without selling a single script or novel, you’re not a failure. You spent your life with your characters, telling stories that you cared about. That’s what’s important.

Allow your future self the freedom of looking back fondly over these memories without the worry of what could’ve been.

BONUS: Typewriters Sound Awesome

I never knew how much of a typewriter-phile I was until I watched Trumbo. The constant clicking and clacking of keys makes you feel like progress is being made. I need to buy a typewriter and draft letters on it to connect me with the past.

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